Southold parents take issue with Common Core, reading materials

10/24/2013 12:00 PM |
JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Peconic resident Angela Noncarrow expresses her concerns about Common Core to the Southold school board Wednesday night.

JENNIFER GUSTAVSON PHOTO | Peconic resident Angela Noncarrow expressing her concerns about Common Core to the Southold school board Wednesday night.

Southold Elementary School parent Denis Noncarrow is so outraged about how Common Core curriculum is being implemented in his son’s third-grade classroom that he’s considering taking his child out of the public school system entirely.

Mr. Noncarrow and his wife, Angela, of Peconic, addressed the Southold school board during its regular meeting Wednesday night.

The couple said they were shocked to learn part of their son’s classwork involved reading “Nasreen’s Secret School,” a book written by Jeanette Winter that’s based on a true story about an Afghan girl.

The character’s name is Nasreen, whose grandmother enrolls her in a secret school after the girl’s parents are taken away (and never returned) by members of the Taliban.

Ms. Noncarrow’s son told her the book’s theme is that “school is a safe place,” she told the board.

“This girl had her parents taken away!” Ms. Noncarrow said. “She shut down and didn’t speak for the remainder of the school year and the following school year, when she came back, her friend said ‘I missed you.’ And then she started talking again. My son said ‘That’s great. She started talking again, but, mom, her parents are still dead.’”

Though the lesson might be that school’s a safe place, the kids are dwelling on the horrors of the story, she said.

“That’s really what the kids are getting away from this,” Ms. Noncarrow said. “But [the teachers] are trying to tell the kids school is your safe place? They couldn’t find any other story?”

The school board agreed the reading material wasn’t appropriate for third grade and board member Scott DeSimone said he didn’t believe the moral of the story was about feeling safe in school.

“My take is the intended message is about Islam and Allah,” he said. “That’s my opinion.”

Mr. Noncarrow, who serves as the president of Community Action Southold Town and is a former Southold Republican Committee chairman, said although he’s pleased the district agreed to pull the book, he’s concerned pressures to integrate Common Core curriculum inside the classroom is placing local control over public education at risk.

“We’re talking about pulling our kid out of school,” he told the board. “If I’m paying taxes and my kid’s home — my wife isn’t working because she’s teaching my little guy — I’m going to be pissed and you’re all going to hear it.

“It’s not a threat,” he said, explaining that the realities under the Common Core are going to frustrate more sand more parents, who are going to take their gripes to the districts.

“It’s just this is getting big now,” he said. “It’s not going to be pleasant for anybody and I feel real bad for you folks. I thank you all for being here and doing this. God bless you, but we’ve got to watch this stuff.”

The Common Core State Standards Initiative primarily requires instructors to teach more non-fiction and more rigorous math to students at a younger age, and is a set of national standards designed to raise the bar for classroom instruction. It’s also designed to help prepare students for college and careers upon graduating high school.

After New York adopted Common Core, the state published lesson plans for teachers to help students achieve the new standards. The state doesn’t mandate schools to use these specific lesson plans, but they are available online at engageny.org.

One parent said she couldn’t help but notice her child’s math homework materials had Engage New York logos stamped on them.

She fears teachers are becoming “robots” being pushed to regurgitate state materials.

“I could have just done this myself” by going to the website, she said.

Southold Superintendent David Gamberg said although district officials have gone on record with their concerns about the direction of public education, teachers are “adapting” to the curriculum mandates — not “adopting” them — because he believes the state’s one-size-fits-all approach is “illogical.”

“There are nuggets — they might be granular, they might be small — that are not all bad,” he said. “We have to be careful in not losing sight of some elements that might be of value to us locally.

“Teachers are working as hard as they can to review, decipher and determine what works best.”

Mary VonEiff, a Southold parent who has worked as a special education teacher and administrator in school districts across the East End, also took issue with the book but directed most of her ire at the Common Core overall.

Her daughter is also in the same third-grade class the Noncarrows’ son.

Ms. VonEiff said finding out students were being made to read the controversial book “was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

“My problem is not with the story or even the content of the story,” she said. “What I do not appreciate, if you look closely at the modules and the implications for this book, is that it is being used as a tool.”

She explained that through Common Core, students are being trained and measured by their habits, not by their intelligences.  She believes the initiative strips local control of education away from parents, teachers, administrators and school boards.

“My daughter is 8 years old,” she told the school board. “You want to teach her about the value of education under adversity, the supposed goal of the lesson, then what happened to Helen Keller or Abe Lincoln?”

Board members thanked the audience of about 20 residents for attending the meeting. The group made for one of the larger crowds since the 2013-14 budget talks.

School officials will be hosting a Nov. 6 forum to discuss how Common Core materials are being used in the schools.

jennifer@timesreview.com